Alvapillai: A Silent Axle of the Colonial and Post-colonial Ceylon Administration
by Sachi Sri Kantha
November 23rd marks the birth centenary of Kovindapillai Alvapillai (1905--1979), one of the prominent silent axles of the colonial and post-colonial Ceylon Adminstration. He belonged to the now extinct breed of Tamil professionals in Ceylon, who were the administrators with the title, ‘Ceylon Civil Service’ (CCS). A few of his illustrious contemporaries include Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan (1896-1965), M.Rajendra (1911-1991), M.Sri Kantha (1913-1982) and Raju Coomaraswamy (1915-1981)
For three decades, from 1932 to 1963, Alvapillai was one of the main axles of Ceylon’s administration. He belonged to the select few of the first generation of natives to tread the path of administrators carved by British gentlemen of island’s colonial era like Emerson Tennent (1804-1869) and Leonard Woolf (1880-1969). But, unlike the previous phases of the colonial period served by Tennent and Woolf, the particular three decade period (1932-1963) served by Alvapillai saw the island being transformed from a British colony into a fledgling neo-colonial state with high prospects for vitality. That the high prospects did not materialize in the succeeding four decades due to political myopia and the chicanery of the ruling class is another story. But, by their integrity, non-corruptibility and service mindedness, administrators of Alvapillai’s caliber did persevere to instill hopes in the lives of commoners and in the careers of fumbling politicians turned Cabinet ministers.
Alvapillai’s fort was the food ministry of the island, and he figuratively ‘ruled’ there for nearly two decades, from 1942 (as Deputy Commissioner of Food Purchase during the Second World War) to 1960 (as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Food and Shipping). As one obituarist noted without any embellishment,
“Kovindapillai Alvapillai (73), the quiet Civil Servant, who as simple as the Jaffna cigar he cherished, served under ten Food Ministers of various governments. His job was to keep the nation well fed. The last Civil Servant to retire from government service, Mr.Alvapillai made use in full measure the Hindu philosophy, in which he was quite an authority, to clinch successfully tough negotiations he conducted abroad to keep our larders replenished.
He was Food Commissioner, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, Deputy Permanent Secretary- Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, Chairman-Petroleum Corporation, and Chairman-Ceylon State Flour Corporation. The man was once described by the late Mr.V.A.Sugathadasa, then Minister of Nationalised Services, as ‘the best negotiator East of Suez’, was known among CCS circles to carry the freight rates, conversion tables and other complicated details of the food business in his head…” [Ceylon Daily News, Feb.19, 1979]
In those pre-calculator, pre-computer days, it was a given that administrators of the caliber of Alvapillai had to keep the useful number ingredients in their heads. One could even say that Alvapillai was blessed at birth with this talent. It has been a folklore among Eelam Tamils, that there is something in the soil of Paruthi Thurai (Point Pedro) which has bred mathematical wizards and talents with a gift with numbers.
Even as recent as 2003, in an eulogy to Philip Gunawardena (one of the fathers of Marxism in Ceylon), Willie Wijeratne observed,
“He (Philip Gunawardene, that is) had some very fine Civil Servants who worked for him. I remember one of them – Mr.K.Alvapillai who carried out his policies to the letter. Once when a reshuffle of Permanent Secretaries was to take place, he insisted that his Secretary should not be removed.” [Ceylon Daily News, March 29, 2003]
In these days of instant banishments for civil administrators following Cabinet reshuffles and general elections, Alvapillai was an indispensable talent a Cabinet minister could not easily dispose of. This was because the shrewd politicians knew that the secret for their political survival depended on feeding the empty stomachs of their poor constituents, and the number wizard Alvapillai then knew the formula to procure the food supply for the island. Thus, apart from Philip Gunawardene, Alvapillai worked with distinction for quite a number of Cabinet Minsters including Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, A.Ratnayake, J.R.Jayewardene, T.B.Illangaratne, Maithiripala Senanayake and V.A.Sugathadasa.
In his reminiscences of illustrious contemporaries, James T.Rutnam (a birth-year cohort of Alvapillai) remarked,
“K.Alvapillai, a brilliant product of Hartley College, Point Pedro, was one of us. He became the senior-most Civil Servant in the Public Service, when he retired. In the colonial days, had he been a white man, he would have ended his career with a knighthood and a colonial governorship. Few people are aware that this incorruptible, conscientious and most efficient civil servant had been responsible for the saving of millions of rupees for this country in the Food Department by his keen business sense and negotiating skill. I feel it my duty to record this from my own personal knowledge and experience.” [in The Morning Star-Supplement, Jaffna, Sept.19, 1975, p.2]
To provide some biographical facts, Alvapillai was born to Kovindapillai and Seethevi Pillai couple in Puloly East of Point Pedro, as the elder son. He had three siblings; an elder sister Nagaratnam, younger brother Sathasivam Pillai and younger sister Theva Yogam. At the age of ten, he lost his father, and, though the financial circumstances were far from satisfactory for the family, it could hardly prevent Alvapillai’s grim determination to make a grade in society. Alvapillai’s success story has been an inspiration to his younger kin (including my father) and a beacon for numerous Hartley College students since the 1930s, who have had to overcome a lack of material wealth in the family. Alvapillai married Kanagamma, the daughter of V.Nallathamby and Vallipillai of Tellipallai.
After his death, I asked Mr.Alvapillai’s widow, “Why did Peri-Aiyah [grand uncle] not write his autobiography or Memoirs?” Her response was, “You know, Thamby, he had been asked this question by some others as well. But, he is not a kind of person who’d like exposing the failings of others. He had mentioned, that if he has to write all what he knows, then it will be unpleasant for many who hold the political power. So, he left it at that.” Alvapillai lived by his pious dictum of ‘Speak no ill of Others.” Thus, on February 17th 1979, Alvapillai took quite a number of secrets of Ceylonese statecraft with him to the funeral pyre.
As a student of history, even now I mourn the loss of this valuable primary source of information on the island’s ruling political elite from mid 1930s to 1960. I began frequenting Alvapillai’s house in Charles Circus, Colombo 3 (located in the vicinity of the Colombo Campus of the University of Sri Lanka) only since 1972 when I entered the university. Though a blood kin, but separated by two generations, he was such a majestic presence that I hardly had the nerve to talk to him on a ‘one on one’ basis about the politicians of past eras whose secrets he knew. When he died in 1979, I was only 26. If I had been born ten years earlier, I would have attempted to record Alvapillai’s oral history of that vital period.
As stated in the obituary note which appeared in the Ceylon Daily News at the time of his death , Alvapillai was an unassuming scholar and patron of Hinduism. He had served as the President of the Colombo Vivekananda Society, Colombo Tamil sangam for long. He was also one of the founders of the Colombo Hindu College.
Alvapillai wrote Tamil poetry, none of which appeared in print. After his death, through the courtesy of Mrs.Kanagamma Alvapillai, I had a glimpse of some of his notebooks in which he had scribbled verses. I assembled a few of them and published an article in a Sunday issue of Virakesari, under the title, ‘Achcheraa Kavithaikal’ (Unpublished Verses; April 1, 1979). Like his British predecessors Emerson Tennent and Leonard Woolf, Alvapillai also ventured into prose writing. Unfortunately, whatever he wrote either got published and remains scattered or remains unpublished. He wrote his own speeches, which he had to deliver on official occasions and cultural functions. No ghost writers were needed for him in those days. One of his speeches I located in one issue of the Ceylon Veterinary Journal of 1953 - an opening address to the annual meeting of the professional society of island’s veterinarians.
To honor his memory, for taste, I provide below excerpts from a welcome address Alvapillai delivered in 1954, on the occasion of Mrs.Vijayalakshmi Pandit (1900-1990) – the younger sister of then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru – inaugurating the Colombo Vivekananda Society’s Golden Jubilee Celebrations.
A 1954 Address of Welcome to Mrs.Vijayalakshmi Pandit
by Kovindapillai Alvapillai
[delivered on March 16th 1954]
Srimathi Vijayalakshmi Pandit, The Colombo Vivekananda Society beg to offer you a most hearty welcome. We are very happy to be honored with a visit by you and to have the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of the Society inaugurated by you. On this memorable occasion we are naturally full of the memory of the great spiritual teacher and religious reformer of India, Swami Vivekananda, whose name we are proud to bear. Swami Vivekananda will be ever remembered, not only for the religious renaissance he kindled in his day in India and elsewhere, but for the definite place he secured for Hinduism in the religious map of the world by his indefatigable labours outside India.
The greatest modern exponents of the Vedanta Philosophy, his scholarly exposition of the various systems that comprise it, left a lasting impression in the minds of the West and enhanced the prestige of India and her traditional civilization based on the culture of the spirit. We recollect with great pride that when he returned home in January 1897 after his triumph at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, the Hindus of Colombo, of whom just a few are living even today, were the first to welcome him in this very city and congratulate him on his achievements. And when this great Soul shed his mortal coil in July 1902, our forbears founded this Society to perpetuate his memory and to organize the Hindu community for the pursuit of the lofty ideals of unity, service and selflessness preached by him. We have, as an institution, completed 51 years of existence and, although there are other associations of Hindus in other parts of Ceylon, a few of them probably older than us, we rank as the premier Hindu Society, endeavouring in a humble way to keep aflame the torch of Hindu religion and culture. Even as we have in the past looked up to Indian seers and savants for guidance and inspiration in matters religious, we wished to have with us on the occasion of these celebrations one who is in the forefront of the life and work of modern India.
It is our singular good fortune that you should have been able to come down from the Parliament of Nations to this little island and have consented to inaugurate the commemoration of half a century of service done by this Society in the name of him who astonished the world by his performance at the Parliament of Religions. Contrary to what a few believe, the women of India have, throughout her history, played a full part in the political, social, cultural and religious progress of their great land. We have read and known of poets, philosophers, saints, social reformers and even warriors among the women of India, and in keeping with this tradition you have to your credit long years of service in the cause of the political emancipation and social rehabiliation of your land. You come of a family that has fought unselfishly and unflinchingly for generations for the rights of its countrymen. Today you are, by virtue of your exalted position, the pride of not only the womanhood of India, but of all the womanhood of the East. We wish you many more years of service to India and to the United Nations Organization of which you are now President.
It is only fitting that I should say a few words on this occasion about the aims and objects of our Society. They are the perpetuation and promotion of the Hindu religion and Hindu culture and fostering and preservation of the Tamil language and culture. To us, Tamils, language is inseparable from religion. The rich and prolific religious literature bequeathed to us by the South Indian saints of old and the exposition and codification of their revealed knowledge and intuitive experiences (Anubhuti) by philosophers who followed them consitute the beautiful and ennobling system of Saiva Siddhanta described by a Western admirer as the ‘highest feat of the Dravidian intellect’. Being followers of this Siddhanta system, we endeavour to keep constantly before us the high ideals of bhakti (devotion), service and renunciation through which these Saints overcame the cycle of birth and death.
It is said that Lord Shiva who created both the Sanskrit and Tamil languages gave the one to Saint Panini of the North and the other to Saint Agasthiar of the South, but finding Tamil to be the sweeter of the two, forsook his mountainous abode at Kailas and took up residence in the South. This is epitomized by Saint Manicavasagar in his Address of Prayer to Shiva, thus: ‘I worship you, the Lord of all Lands, who has made the South as your abode.’
Being the oldest living language which has come down to us from about 5,000 years ago in its pristine purity, we naturally wish to preserve and enrich it and sustain its function as a vehicle of our religious culture. Though Siddhantians in respect of our Sadhanas or religious practices, we hold precious the Vedas, the fundamental scriptures of the Hindus from which both Vedanta and Siddhanta spring. The Hindus believe that systems of philosophy and the spiritual concepts and practices that spring from them are only a means to an end, the end being the realization of man’s nature and attainment of oneness with the Supreme Being.
In the final analysis, whether one system is called monistic and another dualistic, both lead one to the Ultimate Reality. ‘Truth is one, sages call it by various names,’ says the Rig Veda. Also Saint Thayumanavar, with a vision of Sat Chit Ananda perfected by long research into various systems, proclaims the synthesis of Vedanta and Siddhanta in the words, ‘The Wise, who delight in the vision of the Supreme, do not see any difference in the two systems.’ This spirit of tolerance and intelligent understanding, which has been a fundamental feature of Hinduism right down the ages and marks it as a religion of true freedom, guides this Society in its work in uniting the Hindus for the task of preserving our religious and cultural heritage and regulating their daily lives according to the principles and ideals enshrined in it. The same high spirit of tolerance sustains us in our relations with other religious communities, in particular our Buddhist brethren who form the majority religious persuasion in the island. There is so much common ground between these two great religions that both the communities are able to work together in peace and amity for their spiritual and cultural advancement and the good of their motherland.
Our activities are many. Apart from promoting the study and understanding among the young and old, of the Hindu Scripture – the Vedas, Srutis and Agamas – we try to emphasize to the Hindu public the importance of religion in daily life, constantly reminding ourselves about the lives and work of the Paramacharias of old. Says Professor Radhakrishnan, ‘To a world given over to the pursuit of power and pleasure, wealth and glory, these chastened spirits, who have stamped infinity on the thought and life of India, declare the reality of the unseen world and the call of the spiritual life.’ We celebrate annually the Guru-pooja day of these Saints. We also remind ourselves, through appropriate celebrations, of the great Sri la Sri Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna, the champion reformer and reviver of Hinduism in Ceylon, in the last century. Then we have Mahatma Gandhi day in October every year to pay tribute to the Saint-Statesman, the ideal Karma Yogi and the redeemer of India from political bondage.
We often avail ourselves of the opportunity of visits by the present day spiritual leaders of India to seek their guidance and inspiration. Monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda, visit us periodically, speak to us and encourage us in our work. In September 1950 we had the rare privilege of a visit by Swami Shivananda of Risikesh, whose work through the Divine Life Society sustains the religious spirit of India and other countries today. A year later, Yogi Suddhanandha Bharati, the poet-author and religious savant of the South was pleased to honour us with a visit and encourage us.
We conduct classes for the sick in hospitals and for the convicts in prison in order that religion may bring them solace and comfort. We also conduct religious examinations for the benefit of the young. Another important activity we are engaged in is the conduct of a Tamil school and the imparting of education in a religious background. We believe, as other religionists in this country do, that education to be of real value and effect, must be imparted in a religious atmosphere, and we are glad that it is the policy of the Ceylon Government to support such education. Our school celebrates its Silver Jubilee tomorrow. Starting with twenty five pupils, its numbers are now over 1,200.
….You, Madam, have also laboured long and hard for the unity of your Motherland, which we, your small neighbour, are happy to see has been largely achieved. Now, as President of the Supreme World Assembly, you have the opportunity of service in the cause of unity in a much larger context. The work you have already done has earned you international renown, and we pray that your ability, charm and woman’s intuition will guide you in your efforts to achieve this greater unity.
May I now ask you to inaugurate today’s proceedings and give us a message of guidance and encouragement.